Directed by Thom Andersen. USA. 2003.

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Los Angeles Plays Itself asks the question - should we expect films to represent the truth or is anything acceptable in the name of entertainment? Director Thom Andersen is mostly concerned about how his city, the City of Los Angeles, has been represented in the movies. In an abrasive and brilliant three-hour cinematic essay, he wants us to know that the history, locations, and social makeup of Los Angeles bears little resemblance to how it has been depicted on screen over the years. According to Andersen, “Los Angeles is where reality and representation get muddled,” he says. The public conception of Los Angeles (he despises calling it LA) he says is of discontinuity, nonexistent addresses, phony telephone numbers, rich and corrupt individuals who live in modernist houses in the hills, and ethnic minorities who live next to oil refineries if they live at all. 

Containing clips from literally hundreds of films, Los Angeles Plays Itself is divided into three parts plus a very welcome intermission. Encke King narrates but the text is from Andersen, a Professor of Film Studies at the California Institute of the Arts and a resident of Los Angeles since age seven. The first part, The City as Background, looks at how real sites have been misleadingly portrayed in a cinematic history of buildings and houses turned into something far from their intended purpose. Using clips from such diverse films as The White Cliffs of Dover and DOA, he shows how the massive sky-lit Bradbury Building was turned into a British hospital, a Burmese hotel, and a police headquarters. In The City as Character, he shows the deterioration of the residential downtown area known as Bunker Hill that went from an upscale neighborhood to one of seedy rooming houses until it was finally leveled for redevelopment and commercial high rises. 

Accessible by a railcar known as Angel's Flight, Bunker Hill in the movies became a setting for adultery and murder in film noirs such as Kiss me Deadly and Double Indemnity and eventually a futuristic dreamscape in Blade Runner. These are contrasted with the documentary The Exiles by Kent Mackenzie that shows the reality of the cultural dislocation of a subculture of Arizona Indians living in loneliness on the hill. Andersen discusses landmarks that no longer exist such as the Pan Pacific Auditorium and laments the passing of the drive-in restaurant and drive-in movies. He has little good to say about films such as Altman's Short Cuts, Steve Martin's L.A. Story, and Woody Allen's Annie Hall that, he says, repeat tired clichés about his city. He also takes umbrage at films like War of the Worlds, Predator 2, and Independence Day that blow his city to smithereens to satisfy the audience's need for destruction. 

The final part is called The City as Subject and here Andersen exposes the lies of films such as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential that tell only part of history, delving into the real scandals in L.A. history that reached far deeper than that shown in the movies. He even dissects good old Joe Friday in Dragnet, showing it as a TV series that mirrored the LAPDs contempt for the ordinary citizen. The essay ends with a look at some rare independent films that portray a part of ethnic Los Angeles overlooked in big studio productions. These are Bush Mama, Killer of Sheep, and Bless Their Little Hearts, a film about the tribulations of an aging unemployed black man in South Central Los Angeles. 

Los Angeles Plays Itself is a fascinating excursion into the history of cinema and Andersen's commentary is hard hitting, insightful, and revealing. He invites us to reawaken our senses and view movies consciously, not simply accept uncritically what is presented on the screen. Whether you agree or disagree with his point of view, I guarantee you will never look at films in quite the same way again.


Howard Schumann
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